UN meets as Syria ‘chemical attack’ kills hundreds
Opposition leader says death toll from suspected gas attack could be as high as 1,300
Syrian activists have accused president Bashar al-Assad’s forces of launching the gas attack that would, if confirmed, be by far the worst reported use of chemical arms in the two-year-old civil war. Photograph: Bassam Khabieh/Reuters
A girl who survived the apparent gas attack rests inside a mosque in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus today. Britain and France are to request a United Nations investigation into the alleged chemical attack. Photograph: Mohamed Abdullah/Reuters
A boy who survived the attack cries as he takes shelter. One opposition leader said the death toll was as high as 1,300. Photograph: Mohamed Abdullah/Reuters
The United Nations Security Council is meeting this evening to discuss an alleged deadly gas attack in Syria that, if confirmed, would be the world’s worst chemical weapons attack in decades, diplomats have said.
Western and regional countries have publicly called for UN chemical weapons investigators, who arrived in Damascus three days ago to look into previous allegations of such attacks, to be dispatched to the scene of what may be one of the deadliest incidents of Syria’s two-year-old civil war.
United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon said he was shocked and added that the head of the organisation’s inspection team in Damascus was already discussing the latest claims with the government.
Britain and France are to request a United Nations investigation into the attack in which hundreds of people are reported to have died.
“We hope the UN team in Damascus will be given immediate and unrestricted access to this area to try and establish the truth. There is no reason not to be given access when (the site) is not so many miles from where they are doing their work now,” British foreign secretary William Hague told reporters in Paris.
“I hope this will wake up some who have supported the Assad regime to realise its murderous and barbaric nature,” Mr Hague added, before heading into a working dinner with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius.
Syria’s opposition accused president Bashar al-Assad‘s forces of gassing hundreds of people - by one report as many as 1,300 - in the attack. Other estimates put the current toll at between 200 and 500. None of the figures could be independently verified.
Russia, too, urged a fair and professional investigation but Dr Assad‘s biggest foreign ally also heaped scepticism on his enemies’ claims. A foreign ministry spokesman in Moscow said the release of gas after UN inspectors arrived suggested strongly that it was a “provocation“ to discredit Syria‘s government.
Images show scores of bodies including of small children, laid on the floor of a clinic with no visible signs of injuries.
One witness told from the suburb of Erbin: “We would go into a house and everything was in its place, every person was in their place. They were lying where they had been. They looked like they were asleep. But they were dead.”
It was not possible to verify the cause of their deaths. The Syrian government denied that it had used chemical arms.
The Russian spokesman said: “This cannot but suggest that once again we are dealing with a pre-planned provocation. This is supported by the fact that the criminal act was committed near Damascus at the very moment when a mission of UN experts had successfully started their work of investigating allegations of the possible use of chemical weapons there.“
George Sabra, one of Dr Assad’s leading opponents, said the death toll was as high as 1,300.
“Today’s crimes are ... not the first time the regime has used chemical weapons. But they constitute a turning point in the regime‘s operations,“ he told a news conference in Istanbul. “This time it was for annihilation rather than terror.”
An opposition monitoring group, citing figures compiled from medical clinics in the Damascus suburbs, put the death toll at 494 - 90 per cent of them killed by gas, the rest by bombing and conventional arms. The rebel Syrian National Coalition said 650 people had been killed.